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How to get the best from a marketing agency

I’ve worked both in agency and client-side roles over the years and generally I’ve had good working relationships with both clients and the agencies I’ve worked with, however on occasion I’ve wondered how to get the best from the marketing agency I’m working with and I’m sure it’s a frustration many marketers and business owners will experience from time to time.

Both sides need to be dedicated to building the best possible relationship and although we would all agree because the agency is getting paid it should be up to them to communicate, in my experience it’s up to the client-side marketer or business owner to really build that relationship, as it’s often the case in an agency environment that he who shouts the loudest, get the job done. It’s therefore important that the client maintains that constant communication so they aren’t overlooked.

This effective communication on the part of the in-house marketer or business owner will also ensure that the agency is held to account and understands the expectations for them to deliver consistency across all campaigns and platforms.

Of course much of this is dealt with before you get to the campaign level. In selecting the agency you’ll be looking for an agency that has similar values to your brand. In the real world this isn’t always the case, in the real world a marketer may find him or herself working with legacy agencies, where the values of the two companies are different or where the perceptions of brand’s values have not kept up. In these circumstances it’s the marketer’s responsibility to be extra vigilant in regards to output and to reinforce the brand values, or alternatively to argue the case for putting a new agency in place. In my experience a new agency is often the best solution as it’s a fresh start, however this isn’t always achievable either due to relationships between the agency and more senior management, or the fear within the brand about starting with a new agency.

There are probably going to be times when a marketer or business owner finds him or herself working with multiple agencies and it’s important to recognise that agency rivalries can come into play. A key way of overcoming this is to have inter-agency meetings in order to introduce the agencies, ensure they all understand what their responsibilities are and make sure everyone’s going in the right direction, whilst getting behind the brand appropriately. You can carry these meetings out over Skype – however if you really want to get the benefit, you’re going to want to get people in the same room, as the old saying goes: “people deal with people”.

If you are working with multiple agencies it’s important that you demand they work together, you’re not always going to be successful in this approach and personally I would move away from an agency that struggles to work with other agencies, either on a collaborative basis or just through effective communication.

The other thing to bear in mind is that people often move around in marketing and this tends to be especially true in agencies. You’ll find the talent pool isn’t really that big either, so you’ll start meeting up with the same people time and time again in different agencies. One of the reasons agencies often don’t like to speak to other agencies is they fear they’re going to lose talent, however if the agencies are working collaboratively and are paying the right kind of money, it’s unlikely they’re going to lose their staff, and if the senior team in those agencies are on collaborative speaking terms, it’s unlikely an employee is going to feel comfortable making an approach. Either way as an in-house marketer or business owner this isn’t something you should be afraid of.

Of course if you’re lucky enough to be an inhouse marketer at one of the countries mega brands, you may find yourself having to deal with tens, if not hundreds of agencies. In this scenario you’ll probably find a handful will have any real impact on the marketing strategy and these will be the relationships you need to spend time nurturing. The one piece of advice I’d give here is work out who the key agencies are based on output and input, and potential ROI, don’t base it on your personal relationship with the account managers you like to work best with.

You’ve also got to lay down the rules of engagement. The best way to work with an agency is to start small and add more responsibilities in as the trust develops and the agency’s understanding of your business and brand grows. Unfortunately, many agencies will try to tie you in to  a one size fits all package right from the start or say you can’t work with them unless you sign up to the software they use etc. This takes a firm hand and a questioning mind-set.

When you’ve developed that trust, and you’re confident your agency understand the brand and the customers, then it’s time to let them lose; give them the creative reigns and make them be creative, write the brief, throw one or two ideas into the ring and then leave them to it. Most agencies will develop the ideas you’ve given them, the best agencies will come up with something entirely new and create something really special with it.

If you don’t think your agency is being creative enough, tell them they need to be brave and experimental – that’ what they’re being paid for after all. As long as you’re sure the brief is clear and unambiguous your agency will go in the right direction without the need for handholding.

So creating the right kind of creative brief is essential when dealing with an agency, if you don’t create a well-rounded and thought out creative brief in the beginning, you’re doomed to a long drawn out process and ultimately that will be your fault.

Long relationships with agencies effectively increase the size of your marketing department, you get access to skillsets that you don’t have in your team and get many more heads working on the project than you’d be able to justify, and crucially they’re time saving because you’ve already figured out how to work with them and they’ve worked out the type of output they can satisfy you with.

But going back to what I was saying earlier about finding yourself dealing with a legacy agency, eventually you’ll have to sever links with an agency and find a new one, however these relationships are still relatively long lasting in business terms and if you are finding yourself moving between agencies every one or two years you probably need to be assessing how you’re going about getting the best from the agencies you’re working with.

If you’re feeling frustrated with the way your account is being managed by your agency, you might want to suggest it’s time to introduce new people to the account. This needs to be done in a slow and managed way so you don’t shock the output, however this can be a great move to get the best out of a team and move things in a different direction whilst getting the same destination with the same shared vision.

I’ve worked as an in-house marketer, as a consultant in an agency and as a freelance seo consultant so I’ve had a fair amount of time to think about this and ultimately, if you’re sat thinking about how to get the best from a marketing agency, you need to think about how you are communicating with them. Communication is the key to building a strong relationship, the people working your account need to be your friends and understand you as much as the brand so I ring them just to chat about my weekend and enquire after theirs, it’s a simple trick but effective, if you’re dealing with a lot of agencies you are probably going to need a relationship management system to remember key points about them.

If you’ve done everything you can to increase the communications between yourself and your agency and they still aren’t performing it might be time to start speaking to new agencies. The process of finding a new agency has to be well managed though both internally and externally and is something that should never be rushed (but that’s another blog entirely!)

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